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Business owners need time to think

By Glenn Burkins
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting Charlotte’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.

Ask a small-business owner what he or she needs most desperately and the answer will typically involve financial resources.

As vital as cash is to the growth of any business, some experts would argue that another scarce commodity – quality thinking time – is equally important … and often overlooked.

I was reminded of this recently after spending an hour or so brainstorming ideas with a member of my advisory team. Issues and problems that had stymied me for weeks suddenly gained new clarity when I stepped away from the daily demands of actually running the business.

My former instructors at Columbia University, where I just completed a business/journalism fellowship, called this taking the “CEO view” or “going up on the balcony.”

On the balcony, they often said, it’s easier for a business leader to see who’s dancing with whom at the party below. It’s the same logic military generals once used when they perched themselves up on the high ground to command their troops fighting on the plain below.

“You can’t make that day-to-day stuff go away, but you have to carve out some time – an hour or two every month – where you put that aside,” said Paul Wetenhall, president of Ventureprise Inc., a nonprofit economic development and business incubator affiliated with UNC Charlotte.

When business owners become too mired in day-to-day operations, they often miss industry, economic or competitive changes that could affect their companies for better or worse, said Wetenhall, who spent years in big business and then as an entrepreneur before taking on his current role advising others in business development.

In addition to simply taking time for strategic thinking, Wetenhall said, small-business owners must also be careful to hear the voices of others in their strategic planning.

“You have to avoid talking to yourself about these big topics,” he said. “You have to find some people who can serve as mentors and advisers. You need some outside voices who can challenge your thinking.”

Shortly after launching my own business more than four years ago, one of the first – and smartest – things I did was to assemble an informal team of advisers. We’d gather around my dining room table once each quarter to vet some of the big ideas I had.

Almost immediately, something surprising happened: This became the group that not only offered me advice but held me accountable, a key need for entrepreneurs who so often toil in isolation.

Over time, our meetings became less frequent until they finally ended. Restarting those sessions is one of the key goals I set for 2013.

Here are the business thinkers Wetenhall said entrepreneurs should include on their advisory teams:

•  The industry expert: This is a person who knows your specific industry and can offer perspectives that no one else on the team is equipped to offer.

•  The successful you: A person who has already gone through the business growth cycles you now face. Industry-specific experience is less important in this adviser. If your business is at the start-up phase, this person should not be steeped exclusively in the ways of big business.

•  The strategic thinker: Again, industry-specific experience is less important. What’s vital is this person’s ability to solve problems and see things differently. In fact, Wetenhall said, this adviser should be the person who approaches your business/industry with a fresh eye to challenges assumptions.

In some instances, he said, a small-business owner will be lucky enough to find all three functions in a single individual, but more often than not an advisory team will need a collection of voices to fill the various roles.

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.

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